In her September 20 A/V Club piece "Should Some Movies Be Taken More Seriously Than Others," Stephanie Zacharek, doing the sort of end run that's become a reliable feature of the "Your Art Film Sucks And So Do You" thumbsucker, characterizes the music score of Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master as "interesting," and then muses that that term, which she put in quotes to begin with, "might just be a euphemism for something you wouldn't want to play at home with your cats around." In a parenthetical, she then adds, "And I say that as someone who has subjected her own cats to Ornette Coleman, Albert Ayler, and late Coltrane, God help their small ears."
I should add here that Stephanie is a friend, but also that I feel for her as Edmund Wilson did for Vladimir Nabokov, that is, a "warm affection sometimes chilled by exasperation."
Anyway, you get what she's doing there—she's trying to tell you, and in an ingratiating way, that just because she's hostile to this particular piece of possibly "difficult" art, she's hardly hostile to ALL such art. Dan Kois did the same thing in his notorious "cultural vegetables" piece when he admitted that he eventually "got" Derek Jarman's Blue, which still tops the shameless self-aggrandizement chart in that it bids to make himself look not just open-minded but gay-friendly and compassionate. (Jarman himself has yet to tell Kois "Good on yer, mate!" or any such thing, alas.) But I'm not writing this to decry the rhetorical device as such. I'm writing this because cats really don't care what kind of music you play in their presence. For the most part.
We like to romanticize and anthropomorphize our delightful feline friends, but let's face it: the domesticated feline consciousness, such as it is, is simply not wired to respond subjectively to, let alone process, music. Cats are attentive, sure, and have very sharp senses. But their senses are arranged in a way that's entirely different from our own, and their pleasure centers have very little to do with those of humans. It stands to reason that the inverse follows—they're annoyed by different things. Loud noises startle cats, to be sure, just as they startle humans. A blaring saxophone, played by Coleman, Ayler, or Coltrane, simply doesn't register to a cat the way it does to us. Cats don't try to make sense of it because A) their intellectual apparatus is not so sophisticated as they're able to make sense of it and B) there's no practical need for them to make sense of it. They categorize sounds in an almost binary way: those that are specifically friendly and inviting (your voice, the snap of a cat food can opening) and those that either threaten them or put them in stalking mode (as in the chirp of birds on a branch outside a window). If you put on No New York, your cat won't saunter in front of the speaker, raise a cat eyebrow, and ask "What's HE on about" as James Chance and the Contortions subject "I Can't Stand Myself" to a seizure.
My cat, the above-pictured Pinky, a.k.a. The Pinkster, a.k.a. Beast, a.k.a. Purr Beast, a.k.a. about two dozen other really stupid nicknames, never showed any visible reaction to any of the music I played in my apartment during the period of our cohabitation, which was from 1990 to 2006. He was five years old when my cohabitating girlfriend of the time, Beth "The Shermanator" Sherman adopted his adorable ass, and we had no idea what environment he came from or what kind of music was played in it. As you can imagine, what with my being a very nearly professional Rock Snob of a certain age and having come of a certain age in a certain era, the amount of ostensibly Unlistenable Noise in my music library is pretty formidable, and I can find it for you in pretty much nearly every genre in which the quality of unlistenable noisiness is possible. From AMM to Xenakis with DNA, Metal Machine Music, Swans and The Velvet Underground in between, the Pinkster heard it all, and frankly, he didn't give a shit.
All except for one recording. The 1991 Gramavision CD The Second Dream Of The High Tension Line Stepdown Transformer, a particular iteration (the 1984 "Melodic Version") of a piece by the American composer LaMonte Young. Young is a composer with a particular interest in long durations, microtonal intervals, and drone music, and unlike his The Well-Tuned Piano, High Tension Line Transformer is not, on the face of it, a particularly complex or knotty piece; it consists here of an ensemble of trumpet players who chose between four specific pitches and play them at varying lengths. The first time I played it at home on my stereo, which was/is pretty good and can get pretty loud, it made Pinky very nervous. I don't know if it was the specific pitches, or the phases they might seem to go in and out of, the sounds in relation to the silences, but the piece made him immediately extremely nervous. In very specific way: he began pacing in front of the speakers, and pausing, and then he would look at me, and then he would pace some more, then look at me. It was the damnedest thing. After about four minutes I just had to turn it off. He never reacted to any other music, including the scant amount of Young music on disc, in the same way again. And, you know, in the interim, Keiji Heino made A LOT of records and I owned and played a lot of them.
Some time soon after the unfortunate experience with The Second Dream Of The High Tension Line Stepdown Transformer I had the occasion to interview LaMonte Young and his partner Marian Zazeela, and I told him this story in the spirit of sharing a droll anecdote. Young is a man of rather gentle demeanor, but that did not prepare me for his reaction: he was genuinely upset, almost hurt. Whatever his overt intentions concerning his music, causing unrest in the nervous system of another living creature did not figure. The idea that it did my cat some brief harm was not even vaguely amusing to him.
Artists are unusual people. And their thought processes are unusual, and the extent to which their thought processes are unusual is often not unrelated to the medium in which they work. Later in Zacherek's article about...whatever it's about, she says "[t]he movie I’m yearning to see again was not made by anyone who has been deemed a great artist, but by a sometime-director who mostly writes screenplays." This movie is Premium Rush, which I haven't seen. I couldn't review it because not one but two friends worked on it, but I hear it's very good and I look forward to catching it. I rather doubt, however, that sometime-director David Koepp would really appreciate having his movie adopted as a club with which to attempt to beat The Master and its fans over the head. The implication Zacharek is barely bothering to try to cover up is that there are some directors who like you and who want you to have fun, and some directors who hate you and want to punish you and make you do homework. Because no actual pleasure can be had from a "difficult" film. Even if you do own some Albert Ayler records.
Before I get too exasperated, I'll give the last word to Orson Welles, who, in a mid-'60s interview for a British television show called Tempo, is asked by the interviewer: "To what extent, though, do you normally consider the audience you're going for?"
Welles pauses for a good five seconds, then answers:
"Not at all. Impossible to.
Sounds arrogant. It isn’t meant to be and I don’t think it is. It’s because the
public is so unimaginably large. Whenever I do a play I think not only of the
public but of the specific public of that year and that time. And what it will
be like. That’s part of what’s
good about the theater. And part of what’s bad. What limits it even as it makes
it wonderfully immediate. But a film you simply cannot think of the public
because it’s made up of people in Manila, in the mountain vastnesses of the
atlas in the Andes, in Indianapolis, in Manchester, in…tin huts in the jungle.
You simply cannot think of that audience or think what they like because…they
simply aren’t an audience. It’s just a whole…population, you’re making it for,
of the globe, some percentage of which…will drift into a hut or a movie palace
and see what you did. Which is what limits films to an extent but which to a
great extent frees you. But the people, the PURELY commercial people, the
downright movie hacks who 'give ‘em what they want' are not thinking of the
public they’re thinking of the distributors. They know what the distributors
want, but they’re not anymore thinking of the public than I am. They can’t
imagine that public any more than I can. They just know the distributors say, 'There’s a market this year for tough, sexy spy movies. So give ‘em what they
want.' But they’re not really thinking of a public that likes them. They’re
thinking of bookers who will play them and report that we did that much money.
I think it’s an important distinction."
The Tempo interview is an extra on the excellent foreign-region Blu-ray disc of Welles' The Trial, a movie that wants to punish you and make you do homework.
Here is another picture of my cat Pinky, God bless him, who I miss every day and whom I aspire to be more like all the time. As in, for instance, this: